Are we traveling via a DeLorean or a hot tub time machine? It doesn’t matter as long as we get there. Where? Back in time to arguably the decade that revolutionized culture. We have arrived.

The year is 1989 and the community is West Belfast. Hold fire. I need to check the news on teletext. All clear. Let’s go exploring. Stall the ball. Put this on first. What is it? A pink and blue shell suit. You need to blend in. To give you an idea of influences shaping our lives back then, I need to break these into subcultures:

  • Super sporty (Aged 11-13) – American style bomber jackets (49ers, Dolphins, Celtics, Bears, Redskins,) and of course L.A. Raiders (Hip Hop culture N.W.A.), Nike Air Max, Manchester United, Glasgow Celtic, and Liverpool tracksuits and kits. Influences; Brut Faberge (Aftershave), Saint and Greavsie, Leisure World, Why Don’t You, and the Wonder Years. Habitually found racing Gliders, Mallusk playing fields, or jumping off the back of coal lorries, fire engines, and Ulsterbus.
  • Super trendy (Aged 14-16) – Miami vice jackets, Rupert the bear jeans, Lemon cardigans, Pink ties, 20 Pleats and multi coloured wrist bands Routinely trying to hit on the ladies, but hadn’t a £5 between them. Influences; Kouros (Aftershave), Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Hitman and Her, Baywatch, Knight Rider., A-Team, and Airwolf.
  • Super rebellious (Aged 17-19) – Black slip-on shoes, white socks, drainpipe jeans, white t-shirts, and a black leather jacket. Normally buying 3 loose cigarettes, playing snooker (Conway Mill/Peter Pan), or extracting lead from an empty house. Influences; Old Spice aftershave, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Minder, Only Fools and Horses, Desmond’s, Madness, Specials and Bad Manners.
  • Super confused-Desert Boots, Glasgow Celtic track bottoms, Denim jacket, and a Liverpool jersey. Switch the Liverpool jersey for a Manchester United one, and that was me! What a trendsetter. These are vivid memories that 30-plus years later I can still smell the lard sizzling. Or was it the vehicle burning nearby? We were still a country in conflict. How was I to know then (12 years old) that this environment was shaping part of my identity? To understand your present, you need to embrace the past.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Now, this is a question my daughters are discussing with their friends (Socially distanced via face time of course) as I sit and write this story! Jesus, where has the time gone? I can recall my teachers in school asking the class this same question when we began secondary (junior-high) school (aged 11-16 years). If you played soccer or enjoyed jumping from heights (guilty of both) then there were only 2 options: (1) a soccer player, (2) a fireman. What is it about these two career paths that created so much excitement and expectation in my mind? At age 12 you have no real concept of finance, except I want to be famous. That’s the soccer mindset. Grab the water key off the side of that fire engine. No need to state this career path!

Apologies to the residents of the Springfield Road area who had no water in the late summer of 1989! Nothing better than turning on those water hydrants. You all did it. Did I manage to reach any of these ambitions? Let’s put the latter out first! I failed the Fireman’s test aged 19 years on a technical error with the hose run. Where was Video Assistant Referee (VAR) when you needed it?

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Life Lesson One: We all face adversity and challenge, and we fail!

Making those soccer dreams a reality. Let me give you a typical day when I was aged 12 years. Return home from school, throw school bag in the hall, change shoes and play soccer in the street until I heard the following scream “Michael your dinner’s ready” At that stage, I was already playing for the Corpus Christi College soccer team and a local boys club (Holy Trinity FC). So, most of my spare time I had a ball at my feet. The passion, commitment, and enthusiasm for soccer dominated most of my thoughts. How many Panini sticker albums can you actually fill in one season? Swapping stickers was brilliant. It was like St George’s Market (Belfast).

I was a fan of Manchester United, my dad took me to my first match when I was 7 years old. Travelling through the night on the slow boat. It was an amazing childhood experience. Gordon Strachan scored in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Old Trafford. All this playing, training, and focus began to lead somewhere, as scouts started coming to our matches.

Before I knew it I was on trails with different clubs in the U.K. (Millwall, Southampton, and Leicester City Football Clubs). Those dreams were starting to be within reach. Time to fuel the body for performance. What do you need Michael? Bottle of milkman’s orange, Belfast bap and a packet of Tayto cheese and onion! The post-match meal of real champions.

Life Lesson Two: Focus, persistence, and attitude are essential for your mentality.

Coming to America-The cross-community experience. Before I had turned 12, I had travelled to America for six weeks through Project Children. The program was the brainchild of Denis P Mulcahy an NYPD Officer (formerly from Cork/Ireland). The idea was to bring both catholic/protestant children together from some of the worst conflicted communities in the country and give them an experience in a different culture. The children were placed with American families in various parts of the U.S.A. Fortunately for me, it was New England, the Boston region.

This was the decade of the Celtics when Bird, Mc Hale, Ainge, and Parish were making the NBA Finals. The famous Fenway Park home of the Redsox Baseball Team was all within a drive. It was the first time I had met protestant children on more relaxed terms. For some reason, I couldn’t stop staring at this kid’s ears. He didn’t look like Frodo Baggins at all. He looked just like me. Assumptions are the mother of all fuck ups. No need for any bricks and bottles today! Let’s go stateside.

We traveled via Aer Lingus. I’ve never seen so many kids on one flight. (Organised chaos). It was also my first time on a plane. Nervous, excitement, and fear do not make for a happy stomach. Fortunately, I was sitting beside the bathrooms! When we landed I never saw buildings so tall. Meeting the families was a riot. We traveled to a large venue where they had all gathered. I scan the room, and the hundreds of cardboard signs to find the new mum and dad.

I can still hear the excitement and screams now as I walked towards them. Instant family, here we go. The time in New England was an unbelievable experience. The family home was akin to something out of Beverly Hills 90210. It was a complete shock to the system returning to the streets of West Belfast. But I did keep the accent for a few weeks! I sounded like Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Life Lesson Three: Embrace diversity and learn to accept others.

Enjoy yourself, for god’s sake. When I was aged 12 I loved nothing more than playing soccer and exploring. There was no hesitation or fear when trying new things. You just did it. No need to think about the consequences of your actions. What are those anyway? These were the days when your imagination could run wild about what to think up next. How did you have fun, when you were 12 years old? For me, there were a lot of pranks, risks, and running! Another apology, this time to Mr French Toast, and his window. Now, 30-plus years later, a lot of those simple things seem a lot more difficult. Why?

“Life is what happens when your busy making other plans.” ~~ John Lennon

Now I could say life got in the way. If it wasn’t for debt, losing a home, young offenders centre’s business risks, welfare, court cases, dead-end jobs, worry, stress, judgment, and shame I would be fine. But wait. All of those things I spoke of when I was 12 years old are still free to me now. So what happened? I forgot about the journey and focused on the fire fighting. Living in the present was put to one side for the stress that comes with worrying about everything. It took me until the COVID-19 global pandemic to get my head out of my rear end.

Life Lesson Four: We only get one shot at this journey. Enjoy the ride.

Being a dad is easy. When I think back to times around the house with my dad growing up I remember seeing him after he returned from work. He left before I got up for school most mornings. He took me everywhere at weekends in his car and was always at most of my soccer matches. To me, this looks like the easiest job in the world. Back to that concept of living in your reality! Now as the dad of 12-year-old twin girls, they are reaching that stage of life when they are becoming more attuned to the world around them.

It might be the role of technology in their lives (thanks Google Classroom), social media, (Tik Tok rules), Netflix and YouTube, or online shopping that can dominate parts of their day. A lot of this access I didn’t have available to me in 1989. Smartphones in the 80s! I probably would have thrown that at the passing army jeeps. Our world is changing at a rapid pace, and as a dad of twin girls, I had to reassess my approach to parenting. The volume of information, cultural shifts, and conversations you go through weekly should be a Ph.D. study. Did I say being a dad was easy? It requires the dedication, time, humility, and patience of a Buddhist Monk.

Life Lesson Five- You need to be there, show up, and play a huge part in your children’s lives.

My buddy says he fancies you? These were great learning moments, although I didn’t know that at the time of how you handle adversity! So here we go with an everyday scenario in a school, youth club, or community setting. You fancy the same girl as your friend. How will you know if she feels the same about you? It’s the best trick in the book. You approach her and tell her your friend fancies her to gauge her reaction. If she says I’m not interested then you can report back the situation to your friend. You imagine that her friend will come over after you spoke to her and say she fancies you instead! Don’t know if this always worked.

But that’s how you started to become curious. If all else fails you could always play kissy catch! For those who don’t know this game. The boys usually chased the girls and when they caught them they kissed them on the cheek. Or the lips if you were a bit of a lad! Be warned, you needed to have large doses of Insignia (aftershave) applied before chasing anyone!

As a dad of twin girls aged 12, I’m having nightmares of this situation happening! Is it different for the dads of girls? I speak to friends of mine all the time who have gone through this process, and they said it’s like Nightmare on Elm Street. Let me be clear on this point- if some lad called Sean Paul with two hoop earrings, a moustache, and skinny jeans rocks up at my door. I’m using The Undertaker’s chokeslam on them. Another learning moment filled with enjoyment to look forward to.

Life Lesson Six-Excitement, curiosity, and awkwardness is all part of learning.

The School of Hard Knocks. When I reflect on life growing up on the streets of West Belfast in 1989 I’m filled with amazing memories, even though we were a country in conflict. The streets were littered with kids in every direction, all doing their own thing to stay entertained. There was no chance of boredom even though your movement was restricted on certain days due to bombs, murders, or army checkpoints. You might say, that’s no environment for children to witness. However, we thought this was how everyone lived.

The streets were our playground and we revelled in all it had to offer. We developed a mental fortitude that children from that decade will understand. The community was tight-knit, everyone was viewed with suspicion who entered, or looked out of place. Did this environment shape part of the man who sits and writes this story? I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot of challenges and tests during my time to date.

These challenges have seen me lose childhood friends from school and sports teams to tragic accidents or suicide. I have lost liberty, a family home, a business (or three), part of my identity (now back), family members to illness/conflict, living on welfare, broken limbs, Covid19, and dead-end jobs that did not meet experience. There is huge learning from these lived experiences. Some of these experiences could see other men struggle psychologically. The fact I can sit and communicate this journey to you would suggest a mental toughness, or resilient mindset. You can be the judge of that.

Life Lesson Seven- Take control of your story

Life begins at 44. Just a play on words? Or is this true for me? Some say this is a myth. So, let’s explore why it’s part of my story.

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again” ~~ Abraham Maslow

In the past 30 plus years since introducing you to my 12-year-old self, I have experienced some real challenges. However, I became a dad of twin girls, gained a college degree, started writing for The Good Men Project, founded the Men of Aspirations platform during the Covid-19 pandemic while had no job, pulled on shoes again. I’ve found my mojo and am now getting up at 5:15 a.m. every morning with a real sense of purpose. Now, you don’t need to ask me what’s your why?

Given my love for soccer, it gives me great pride that one of the daughters is a county player with fantastic potential and enthusiasm to learn the game. It’s how I spend most nights, driving her to train. While the other daughter is finding her way, becoming curious and doing the girly things, with a tinge of attitude! Me, I know who I am, and what I need to do to enjoy this journey to whatever end. “Dad, she took my hair curlers! FFS Back to the Future!

 

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